In Claire Denis’ Friday Night, a woman gets stuck in a Parisian traffic jam. (This is not the sole narrative content of the film, but it’s what I’ll concentrate on here.) The cars crawl, as we observe the idle pastimes of commuters – smoking, singing, dozing. It is a more whimsical version of the comedy of chaotic, industrial society that Jacques Tati etched so superbly in his Trafic (1971) – or the dystopian nightmare conjured in Jean-Luc Godard’s apocalyptic Weekend (1967).
But something else is happening on Denis’ melancholic, nocturnal, end-of-week crawl. A gentle voice on the radio urges drivers to be kind to one of the many people who are on foot in the streets. The heroine, Laure (Valérie Lemercier), is at first reluctant and fearful of strangers. But she eventually opens her private sphere to a man, Jean (Vincent Lindon), whom she has never met. The entire drama of the film unfolds from this single, simple but monumental act of reaching out to an unknown Other.
It is a curious coincidence that two great filmmakers – Denis for her long opening movement, and Abbas Kiarostami for his entire movie in Ten (2002) – should, at the same moment, alight on the car as a central subject. It is another curious coincidence that they happen to be the only filmmakers whom the contemporary French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy has written on at length. Nancy is a commentator whose work obsessively addresses the themes of encountering “the stranger”, and of the difficulties of forming a workable community in a fragmented world – themes that resonate deeply for countries that grapple with what the media love to call a “refugee crisis”.
Both Ten and Friday Night mark a revolution in the cinema’s depiction of automobiles, a turn towards the philosophical essay rather than adrenalin-pumped melodrama. In action movies and thrillers, cars are usually either the best means of escaping from normal society (as in The Fast and the Furious and its sequels); or they symbolise, in paranoiac terms, the fragile social unit that is constantly under violating attack from vicious, monstrous Others (recall Steven Spielberg’s career-launching Duel ).
In a far-reaching essay called “Fate and the Family Sedan”, the Australian critic Meaghan Morris showed that Australian movies have long been particularly attune to the possibilities of cars in cinema. On the one hand, George Miller’s Mad Max movies use gleefully extravagant, customised vehicles as a means of conjuring a kind of Australian Western of goodies and baddies out in the landscape, beyond the law.
On the other hand, daggier Australian films like Michael Thornhill’s The FJ Holden (1977) or Jane Campion’s ingenious short Peel (1982) offer the inside of a car as a social microcosm – but not in an enclosed, paranoiac way. As Morris argues, the car is, in cultural terms, a curious kind of uncertain border space: it seals the passengers in their rigidly circumscribed, social roles; but it also cannot help but let in the multifarious influences of the outside world and its changing history.
Kiarostami’s digital cameras mounted on the dashboard in Ten not only capture of the intimacy of life in cars, but also suggest the cold eye of the surveillance camera – in other words, the convergence of private and public spheres. Friday Night, too, addresses the transformation of the most intimate experience into a collective drama – but in a trusting, optimistic, open-minded way, so different from the regular smash-and-burn screen fantasies that fetishise the motor car.
© Adrian Martin July 2003